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Biography Details Impact First Lady Betty Ford Had On The Country

The cover of “Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer” is pictured.
Courtesy of Gallery Books
The cover of “Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer” is pictured.

First Lady Betty Ford left a lasting legacy on American culture by talking openly about problems that were considered taboo.

Ford opened up a national conversation by discussing her experience with breast cancer and her struggles with addiction. Betty Ford clinics have helped tens of thousands of Americans.

Lisa McCubbin writes about Ford's contributions in the new biography “Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer.”

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McCubbin joins Midday Edition Monday to discuss Ford's legacy.

Biography Details Impact First Lady Betty Ford Had On The Country
Biography Details Impact First Lady Betty Ford Had On The Country GUEST: Lisa McCubbin, author, “Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer”

This is KPBS midday edition. Maureen Cavanaugh do first ladies really influence the country. Many of them have tried. Nancy Reagan may just say no a national catchphrase. Michelle Obama worked to improve nutrition and healthy eating. And Eleanor Roosevelt worked tirelessly for world peace but one often overlooked. First lady left a lasting legacy on American culture by talking openly about problems that were considered taboo. First Lady Betty Ford opened up a national conversation by discussing her bout with breast cancer and her struggles with addiction. And over the years Betty Ford clinics have helped tens of thousands of Americans. Joining me is Lisa McCubbin author of Betty Ford first lady women's advocate survivor trailblazer. And Lisa welcome to the program. Well thanks for having me on. Now Betty Ford was basically thrust into the position of first lady. Remind us how her husband Gerald Ford became president. Yes. So in 1973 Nixon was president Spiro Agnew was vice president and Agnew resigned due to a tax inquiry. So Nixon had to appoint a vice president. He ended up appointing Gerald Ford who was a congressman from Michigan. He was then the minority leader of the house. And he told Betty don't worry vice presidents don't do anything anyway. So he was confirmed in December of 1973 the Watergate investigation was unfolding and then on August 9th 1974 Nixon resigned the presidency and suddenly Gerald Ford became president never having been elected. And Betty Ford went from being a congressman's wife in the span of 10 months to being first lady it was quite remarkable. It is remarkable. Now she'd been in sort of Washington circles for years before she became first lady. How do you think that shaped her as a public figure. Would definitely help her because she knew my Sington been there for 25 years. But her husband had promised her that he was going to resign and they were going to move back to Grand Rapids Michigan which is where they were from. So she really wasn't looking forward to this. But she had been involved with the wives groups and you know was very well aware of how Washington works. She was very popular both the Fords were very popular on both sides of the aisle. They were fun to be around and have a reputation of being honest and having great integrity. Now you interviewed all four of Betty Ford's children and writing this book. What did you learn from those interviews that stood out to you. Oh gosh so much. Susan Ford Bales is the youngest of the four children and the only daughter and I spent the most time with her. She's very close to her mother and continues to carry on her legacy. I learned a lot about what it was like for the children growing up in Washington and living with a mother who was slowly becoming addicted to prescription medication and eventually came out and admitted she was also an alcoholic. But being in it at that time you know to them it was just normal. They never saw that their mother had any kind of problems. There were times when you know perhaps she was a little out of it or they would try to cover up as many children in alcoholic families do. They don't want their friends to see their mother in a certain situation. And children tend to take on different roles in the family. And that was very clear in the Ford family as well. Now today you know having women celebrities tell the public about a breast cancer diagnosis is is not surprising. What was it like back in the 70s when Betty Ford disclosed her diagnosis. Well so Betty Ford became first lady in August of 1974. And seven weeks later she found out there was a suspicious lump in her breast. The standard procedure at that time was to put her under general anesthesia do a biopsy and then if it was found malignant they would remove remove her breast while she was under anesthesia. So she went into the hospital a not knowing if she had cancer and b not knowing if she was going to wake up having one of her breasts removed. This was terrifying. It was also a time when you couldn't say the word breast on television. People whispered about cancer. So for her the first lady to come out and say she was going through this it changed women's health care literally overnight. When she came out with this and she said her her radio or her prognosis was better as a moves because it had been detected early women all across America started lining up at doctor's offices to get their breast exam because it wasn't something that was as automatic as it is today. And you know and perhaps her lasting legacy is the Betty Ford clinics an outpatient Betty Ford clinic recently opened up here in San Diego County. What effect do you think her speaking out about her own addiction had in how we view drug and alcohol addiction in this country. Well again it seems that almost immediately people related to her. She was a beloved first lady because she was so outspoken so refreshing so candid and to see that someone like her could admit that she had this addiction had this disease. It really removed the stigma from it. And then when she started the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage that was just took it to a whole nother level where she was going out to help other people to help them overcome what she. You know the same problems that she had. And over a hundred thousand people have been helped at the Betty Ford Center since it opened in 1982. She literally has saved thousands upon thousands of lives. You know we have such a polarized political environment now. Even first ladies are judged by political standards. How do you think Betty Ford would have coped with the current environment. Oh gosh I think she would have been so refreshing people would have loved her. She was advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment when her husband was president. And it wasn't really popular stance in the Republican Party but she felt so strongly about it. Same with abortion the Roe versus Wade decision had just been made and she came out and said she thought that was the best thing in the world to take abortion out of the backwoods and put it in the hospitals where it belongs. So this was quite controversial but her husband really supported her speaking her mind. And it was wonderful in today's world do you think Betty Ford herself might have run for office. Oh I don't think so. I don't think she really herself had political leanings. She saw once she became first lady she saw that that platform what it could do that she did have a voice. But I think she wanted to leave the politics to her husband. And none of the Ford children have gone into politics either. Interesting Lisa McCubbin we'll be talking about her book. Betty Ford first lady women's advocate survivor trailblazer at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla tomorrow night. And Lisa thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Look forward to seeing everyone tomorrow. You're listening to KPBS midday edition.

She will be speaking at Warwick's in La Jolla on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.